As Ella’s first birthday approaches, the overall reaction is identical: “I can’t believe it’s a year already”, people gush excitedly. I smile feebly and change the subject.
Because I can definitely believe it’s a year. It has been the longest year of my life. In fact, I can’t believe that it has only been a year. Your first child rocks your world, they say. And rock it did. With the force of a seismic earthquake.
Nothing prepared me for the sheer physical exhaustion. That bone-piercing, nauseating and all-consuming tiredness. The use of sleep deprivation as a torture method resonated deeply. One of my earliest memories of those first few days was when we took Ella to the clinic for her new-born vaccinations. On the way home, I turned to my husband and with desperation asked if we could just leave her there for a few days so I could sleep a little bit.
But even more than the shock to my body, was the shock to my identity. No amount of preparation or reading ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ would tell me that from being an independent career woman, I would suddenly shackled to an indecipherable, and demanding new-born. A worshiper of the rational, I read Baby Sense and The Baby Whisperer over and over. But rational is something new-borns are not. I would swaddle and push and rock and pat and swaddle again. A non-conformist from birth, Ella refused to sleep the 18 out of 24 hours as the books promised.
My emotional world was out of my control. Nothing prepared me for the terror I would feel at four months when Ella refused a bottle, and I was not able to nurse her. Her dry nappies would send me into a state of panic. I would sob and sob as she woke up through the night, desperately hungry. My intellectual pursuits, and even my word-finding ability, dwindled to nothing. Weekly Parsha chaburas disintegrated. Sunday morning sleep-ins and yoga classes were a thing of a bygone era. I was lost. I did not know who I was anymore.
And above all, there was the crippling guilt. I desperately wanted and needed to be a good mother. I needed to be perfect. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t in love with Ella from the second I saw her. “Are you loving it?”, people would ask in those first few weeks. I would nod and crumble internally. I thought that I needed to be ecstatic, euphoric and blissful every second.
My demands to be the perfect mother took a toll. It’s no wonder that I was desperate to escape. A trip to the store would leave me ridden with guilt. What kind of mother doesn’t want to be with their own child, I chastised myself. I used to dread coming home from work. Her eyes would judge me, and say, you are not doing enough, you are a bad mother.
My world shrank. I didn’t read a book in six months. Work, baby, bath, bottle washing, bedtime, night-wakings, repeat.
Yes, my world was rocked. I wanted to love this sweet baby, but I didn’t know how to let myself just love her. Mostly I was scared. I lived in fear of neglecting her, of not being there for her, and not being enough. I interpreted her neutral regular infant activities as admonishment of my useless mothering ability. My fear paralysed me, and the box I was trapped in was dark.
My relationship with G-d disintegrated. The woman’s lack of obligation for formal prayer in Jewish law pacified my guilt. I could have made the time. But I had nothing to say to G-d anymore. I had no lofty thoughts, no musings about His world and my place in it. My mental real estate was invaded by squatters who left no room for deep pondering. It was occupied by nappy-types and sleep schedules and vaccinations and bottle washing. I didn’t trust myself as a mother, so how could I trust G-d for giving me this child?
On the outside I looked perfect. But I doubted myself. I compared myself to friends who melded seamlessly into motherhood. I judged myself for not being like them. I demanded instantaneous perfection from myself.
Yes, my world was rocked. The foundations of my existence crumbled to the ground. Independence, rationality, the need for predictability, mental acuity were among the debris.
And amidst the ruins, slowly we emerged. With any stability removed, I confronted the darkest parts of myself. I came face to face with demons buried deep within. I learned that motherhood is a journey, and that compassion to myself along the way was required. I learned to be fully present with Ella, silencing my demands of how a good mother should be. I learned to rejoice in the small victories, and to take joy in Ella’s excitement in the world around her. I learned to silence the accusations, and to take in the obvious love Ella offered me over and over. Despite all my misgivings, she trusted me implicitly. And bit by bit, I learned to trust myself in the process.
With Ella’s birth, my centre of gravity was uprooted. In the months which followed, a new balance was found. But this one was different than before. This new self is more gentle, more flexible and more playful. Yes, my definition of self radically altered. I saw myself originally as a thinker. A meditator. A philosopher. Practical needs were secondary to my need to make sense of the world. I gave to others, but in a limited way. I spent a lot of time reading and researching and studying and just being. This past year, I have become a giver. Every moment of my day is shadowed by my daughter’s needs. I have become more selfless than I ever knew possible.
And in this shaky center of gravity, I redefine myself. I have learned that I don’t need to be perfect. I learn to forgive myself for the times when I am not the mother I intend to be. And I learn that we are growing together. As Ella learns to crawl and walk and talk, I too learn how to go about this world of motherhood. I have learned that despite all my flaws and fears and ambivalence, my daughter loves me fullheartedly. I have learned that it’s okay to want time apart. I am figuring how to make time for myself again, and seeing how that time re-energizes me as a mother.As we negotiate distance and closeness, and the more I accept myself, the more I enjoy her.
I have learned that prayer can be in the form of singing Modeh Ani with my baby as I dress her, and thanking Hashem for her limbs and faculties as she giggles excitedly while I tickle her. I have learned that my informal prayers are deeper than before as I beg Hashem to watch over my beautiful daughter, so innocent and pure and small.
Nothing would prepare me for the earthquake which rocked my world. And nothing could prepare me for the love I feel when I rock Ella to sleep in my arms, and she settles contentedly into my chest. Or for the burst of joy I would feel as her face crinkles up into a gigantic smile when she sees me for the first time in the morning. Being her mother has revealed a tenderness, a softness and a vulnerability which was very hidden.
Yes, my world was rocked. There were many days and moments when I doubted I would ever stand on solid ground again. There were countless times when I questioned if I was cut out for motherhood. Yet in the ruins of the earthquake and the loss of what I was, a more mature structure has been born. This building is wiser, more compassionate and more giving. She smiles as giggles with her baby on the floor, and dances with her on the way to the bath.
It’s been a very long year. There has been a lot of growing, changing and adapting on both my and Ella’s side. There has been birth and death and re-birth. There have been more laughter, more tears and more smiles than ever before. But mostly, within all the hardships, there has been more blessing than I ever thought possible, and more love than I ever dreamed of.